History repeating itself: why Lord Coe must learn from the past


“For the people that don’t believe in cycling – the cynics and the sceptics – I’m sorry for you, I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.” – Lance Armstrong.

Here’s the question: Why – and, equally, how – does anybody who has even an iota of common sense and the most rudimentary grasp of sport, still believe in miracles?

I’m not referring to Lance Armstrong’s faux fairy-tale, which, thankfully has been consigned to the dustbin of history, after years of painstaking scrutiny. No, I’m talking about the innumerable other miraculous performances of elite sportsmen and women that we are expected to believe are genuine acts of human brilliance, achieved by clean athletes – paragons of athleticism and honesty. It’s all a sham.

I want to believe that Usain Bolt ran 9.58 by virtue of his natural talent and training methods. I want to believe that Paula Radcliffe ran 2.15 for the marathon as a result of her once-in-a-generation physiology and unrivalled ability to suffer. But I don’t. This athletic utopia, in which performance enhancing drugs are a thing of the past, is purely an illusion – one which, if shattered, would see the biggest shit-storm the world of sport has ever seen. That’s why national federations, governing bodies, coaching projects, sponsors and athletes alike will do everything in their power to maintain and preserve the illusion. And the public just keeps buying it.

This weekend, the world’s elite athletes will gather in Beijing for the World Championships. The blue riband event, as ever will be the men’s 100m. This year, the much anticipated Bolt v Gatlin showdown in the final is being billed as the ultimate version of Good v Evil. In reality, isn’t it simply Exposed Evil v Closet Evil?

The case of Usain Bolt serves as a particularly useful example when it comes to highlighting the extraordinary putridity of the bullshit we are expected to swallow. A quick examination of the 20 fastest 100m times ever recorded, for instance, reveals some interesting truths. Bolt himself has run the fastest three times in history. The only other athletes to make this elite list are: Tyson Gay – convicted doper, Justin Gatlin – twice-convicted and unrepentant doper, Asafa Powell – doper, and Bolt’s very own training partner Yohan Blake – clean (really? No, of course not, he’s served a doping ban as well).

Are we to believe that Bolt has run considerably faster than all of these men, fuelled only by his favoured diet of chicken nuggets? When you consider the other high-profile Jamaican athletes, such as Veronica Campbell Brown and Sherone Simpson, who have fallen foul of doping rules, coupled with the historically lax approach of Jamaican officials to anti-doping, it all starts to look rather ominous. Is Bolt really the only high-profile Jamaican not to succumb to doping? The fastest man in the history of humankind, who trains with dopers, races against known dopers and has been linked with a notorious Mexican chemist. Surely not!

New lance New bolt

The comparisons with Lance Armstrong are inevitable, albeit slightly tedious, but simply can’t be ignored. Consider this: in each of Armstrong’s seven Tour ‘triumphs’, the men sharing the podium with the American (eight different riders in total) were all either convicted dopers, or were strongly linked with doping affairs. Yet, we were relentlessly fed propaganda claiming that Lance Armstrong, the miracle man, was different. In the face of almost indisputable evidence, people clung to the notion that he, of all people, was clean.

I’m afraid to say that history has a habit of repeating itself. Why would anyone’s natural assumption, in this day and age, be that Bolt is clean? Because he’s a larger-than-life personality who comes across so well in the media? It’s not overstating it to say that Bolt is bigger than the sport of athletics, and the powers that be (IAAF, sponsors, and anyone with a vested interest in athletics) are acutely aware of this. If he goes down, he takes the whole sport with him – we’ve seen it all before in cycling.

When will people learn from the mistakes of the past and the blunders of other sports? It appears that Lord Coe hasn’t, and he’s the man who will be steering the IAAF into a new era. I understand that he is hurt by the damage being caused to the sport that he loves, but I refuse to believe that he is so naïve that he doesn’t think the sport is still riddled with dopers. If even Coe still believes in miracles, then the sport of athletics is doomed.

Veiled by Lord Coe’s stirring rhetoric of recent weeks, in which he talks proudly about promoting clean sport, is the sad reality that at the World Championships in a few days’ time, at least 50 previously-convicted dopers will be taking part, no doubt lining up against countless others who are aided by a banned substance but haven’t yet been caught. The sport has lost its purity, and as a consequence, it’s losing its audience.

It’s a dreadful situation and it’s difficult to see a way out. It requires an end to the constant cover ups and excuses. It requires a complete acknowledgement of the sport’s previous failures and its continuing shortcomings, backed by an aggressive and uncompromising anti-doping policy – and preferably one that is outsourced to an independent body. Is Coe the right man to navigate the turbulent times ahead? I don’t think so. Just keep sweeping it under the carpet, Seb.

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